Simon Schama shares a very personal account of the Balfour Declaration

Historians in the News
tags: Israel, Palestine, Simon Schama, Balfour Declaration



Simon Schama is an English historian specializing in  art history, Dutch history, and French history. He is a University Professor of History and Art History at Columbia University, New York.

My father was 16 years old, just two shy of being conscripted for the trenches, when he — and the rest of Whitechapel — heard about the Balfour Declaration. The letter, sent by the foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Walter, Lord Rothschild, expressed the British government’s support for “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”, but added the proviso “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. 

The initial response of Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, when Sir Mark Sykes came bounding out of the Cabinet Office on November 2, holding the document and announcing, “It’s a boy”, was disappointment. “Well I did not like that boy at first,” he wrote in his memoir Trial and Error, “he was not the one I had expected.” Weizmann had wanted “establishment” to be altered to “re-establishment”, by which “the historical connection with the ancient tradition would be indicated and the whole matter put in its true light”. That true light was meant to shine on something nobler than an opportunistic transaction of imperial strategy. 

Weizmann’s own misgivings quickly gave way to euphoria when what had been done sunk in. That evening he and his colleagues sang what were described as “Hasidic songs” and danced in celebration. A week later, when the document was made public by the Zionist Federation, my father saw the same singing and dancing erupt in the streets of the East End, from Mile End to Whitechapel. Something propitious, something providential, had happened, but also something against the odds. 

At the time of the declaration there were probably only about 5,000 members of the Zionist Federation across the country and the organisation’s offices were a few small rooms on Piccadilly. But equally there is no doubt that emotional support was much broader. If British Zionism did not make the declaration, not unaided anyway, there is no doubt at all that the declaration made British Zionism. A place the Jews could call their own swam into excited vision, and not a colony in east Africa but the birthplace they had never relinquished in memory, ritual, language. 

That East End street party — “a kosher knees-up”, Dad called it, lots of fried fish, cake and shouting — was all instinct and no thought, but then sometimes instincts are the real story. Arthur remembered the “Hatikvah” being sung outside a synagogue close to the family house. A month later the same song brought the crowd to their feet in the Royal Opera House. My father stood outside amid a huge throng beside sacks of the next day’s cabbages.

He knew all about the Jewish opposition: anti-Zionists, the grandees of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Conjoint Committee — Claude Montefiore and those Rothschilds, Leopold in particular — who were on the wrong side of the argument. He was especially horrified by the public accusation of Edwin Montagu, one of the two Jewish members of the Cabinet (the other was the pro-Zionist Herbert Samuel), that the Balfour Declaration was tantamount to being anti-Semitic, since in Montagu’s eyes it presupposed divided loyalties, especially heinous during the war. Others among the anti-Zionist lobby felt the same way, in particular the historian Lucien Wolf, who had actually been questioned about his true nationality by a policeman in 1915 and never quite got over it.

For my father, the defensiveness of the anti-Zionists was a symptom of the gulf dividing West End Jews from East End Jews. The declaration’s 67 words, he thought, could be boiled down to one — the word “home”, bayit. It was all very well for the likes of Edwin Montagu to complain that their indivisible sense of a British home was now vulnerable to charges of divided allegiance, but Montagu’s home was manorial: avenues of oak and elm, game birds flushed from the bracken, dropping to Home Counties guns…..




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